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Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

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It seems that little now remains to suggest that the Spire at Eternity’s Garden ever existed. That once mighty institution of the healing arts, reckoned the finest in the Empire when Frederick held the throne, has now vanished into the fiery abyss of ignorance that poor, deranged Nicovar left as his greatest legacy. Some treacherous voice in the back of my mind urges me to let it lie, tells me that some memories are too painful to be dredged up, but I am a Torchbearer, and in these last days of my life I cannot betray my calling any longer. It is time to tell their story.

I had been friends with Justinia of Eternity’s Garden since early childhood. By coincidence we had been scheduled to have our training sessions on the Heliopticon at the same time, and in time our early training conversations blossomed into a true friendship. We would regularly take the twilight shift together, and lights more often used to communicate dry reports on local orc activity or requests for supplies to trade instead carried our ambitions, our curiosities, and our youthful insecurities. Through those bright flashes of light I felt that I had come to know Justinia better than some who in my own Spire who I saw every day. When we resolved to meet for the first time, I could not know that I would only set my eyes upon the walls of Eternity’s Garden three times, and those three times would haunt my nightmares until my dying day.

It was shortly after my twentieth birthday that Justinia and I resolved to finally meet in the flesh. And oh, what flesh it was! I had known that perfection of the body was their primary obsession, but I confess a youthful frisson of excitement passed through me as I saw them for the first time. Their jaw was strong, their cheekbones high, their muscles seemed carved from the very stone of the mountain on which they lived. Yet as quickly as it had come the excitement faded, for my companion cared little for the aesthetic framing of their body. To Justinia the body was an instrument of business, not of pleasure, something to be perfected rather than enjoyed. It meant little to both of us, of course. Ours was a relationship founded on higher, more intellectual pursuits, and our conversations were no less intense in person than they had been via the brilliant lights of the Heliopticon.

As we walked through the halls of Eternity’s Garden it was clear to see how Justinia had acquired their peculiar obsession. Everything in the Spire was devoted with singular focus to the study of the human body. Sentinels in the exercise yard worked through a fitness regime that made me breathless simply to look at it. Perfectly preserved corpses and skeletons were displayed in cases in almost every room. Even the Ushabti were carved with anatomical precision, mimicking the human form in a way that was at once marvellous and deeply uncanny. Justinia, of course, barely acknowledged the strangeness of their environment, and their comfort reassured me in my turn.

Meeting at last in person, our conversations roamed deeper and broader than they ever had before. Even at the Spire’s evening meal we remained engrossed in our own conversation, to the amusement of those around us. Justinia was as one possessed, not by a malevolent spirit, but by an idea. Every waking moment they had been devoted to the perfection of their physical form, yet every day brought them nothing but constant reminders of how far away that goal was. Every cough, every itch, even the slightest headache was to them an intolerable symptom of the creeping malignancy that the world inflicted upon the human form with every passing moment. Even in my youth I longed for the day when a headache was the worst that I had to tolerate, and I said so, but Justinia would not be swayed. I left them even firmer in their convictions than they had been at the start of my visit.

As the years went by we continued our correspondence, though perhaps less eagerly than before, the lustre of mystery gone from our relationship. I myself delved deeply into the realms of political philosophy, as was the fashion at the time, spending many days and nights debating the works of our own Emperor while penning several modest pamphlets of my own. I still made time for regular talks with Justinia, but it seemed that they too were deeply involved in projects of their own. They were loath to reveal the exact nature of their research without firm results, but they would from time to time let slip the direction of their exploration.

Health, Justinia had determined, was not a thing in itself. To be truly healthy was rather, they contended, to be free of sickness. If the malign influences of the world itself could be defeated, then human life could theoretically be extended indefinitely. An unconventional statement, but no more so than those made in the many debates that occupied my Spire at the time. Perhaps I should have pressed them harder, noticed that their research was itself taking an unpleasant direction, but there is no blindness more complete than that of trust and complacency. It was a blindness I found myself completely sunk in until I finally made my second visit to Eternity’s Garden.

When I finally made my way up the last path to the Spire’s entrance, I was greeted by the lone figure of my old friend. We exchanged a few pleasantries, before they informed me that they were now acting as Arbiter for the Spire. Surprised, I asked what had become of Arbiter Bellerophon. Justinia simply smiled. “He’s come down with something,” they said. There was something in their tone that dissuaded me from inquiring any further.

I continued to hold my tongue as we walked through the quiet halls and courtyards of Eternity’s Garden. There was a peculiar feeling to the place that hung oppressively over me. The Sentinels no longer trained in the courtyard. The displayed corpses were beginning to show signs of rot. Even the perfectly-carved Ushabti seemed to have been altered somehow, their proportions slightly off, their placid faces seeming to show a faint air of discomfort in a way that I could not place. Even had I been inclined to ask, I had not the time to get a word in past Justinia’s monologue. Though their speech was peppered with obscure medical terms, I gathered that they had chosen a new angle on their study. If health was the absence of sickness, then a proper understanding of sickness was necessary to achieve perfect health. My one interjection to ask for clarification was met with a further torrent of incomprehensible jargon that only served to increase my confusion.

I had hoped that the evening meal might allow me to talk to some of Justinia’s spire-mates about the changes that Eternity’s Garden had undergone, but what had previously been a lively and sociable occasion was as unsettling as the rest of my visit. Those few who did attend were wrapped up in heavy, covering robes and spoke very little. Bowls of flower petals scattered around the dining hall did nothing to mask the scent of stale sweat and bile that pervaded the air. When I saw small green blooms of mould in the rice that was being served I feigned illness and left the table. If Justinia noticed my deception they chose not to acknowledge it, only pressing me to note down what symptoms I experienced for future study. I passed a restless night in a bed whose sheets were at once both stiff and unpleasantly moist before making a hasty departure in the morning.

Perhaps I should have left it there, cut off contact with Eternity’s Garden and my old friend, but Loyalty has always had a strong hold on me, and I could not countenance simply abandoning all hope of ever seeing my friend again. I sent infrequent messages to Justinia about developments in my life, gossip from around the Spire, news from Anvil. I avoided serious topics, afraid what I would hear if their research came up again. The responses were infrequent and brief, often nothing more than an acknowledgement that my messages had been received. Sometimes Justinia would invite me to return to Eternity’s Garden, but I made my excuses every time. I was afraid of that place, afraid of my friend, afraid of what might have become of them and what might become of me if I returned.

It was the last message that was ever sent from Eternity’s Garden that prompted my return, running through the hazardous mountain trails by the light of a dim stone and the stars above to reach my destination. When dawn broke across the mountains I was stood outside the gates of that ancient Spire, now closed and barred forever. The building itself had taken on an unhealthy hue, and an early morning mist dripped from the walls as if they were gripped by a feverish sweat. I laid hand on the door, and found it unpleasantly warm beneath my fingers. For a second I fancied that I saw a lone figure, wrapped in white as if shrouded for a funeral, stood atop the wall. Then they vanished along with the mist, and I turned my back on that place, left, and never returned.

I do not miss the hand that I laid upon that door. I do not miss the angry red sores that broke out within a day of my return home, or the hideous, throbbing itch that seemed to pound with each beat of my heart. Where the infection had come from the physicks could not say, though they were all clear that the only way of saving my life was to amputate. I have grown accustomed to writing with my left hand, and on some days I almost forget the events that led to my loss. But now my life is coming to a close. The tumours have spread too far, they tell me. My body is trying to heal itself, and is killing me in so doing. I am sick, and I will not get better again. So it is that I write down my last thoughts, my darkest memories, before I face the Labyrinth once again. It should not surprise me that my mind inexorably strays, as it often does in times of stress, to that final message that my friend sent to me, those twelve words that spoke so calmly of the doom of Eternity’s Garden.

“Perhaps you’d better stay at home. We’ve all come down with something.”